The Day GOP Resistance to Trump Died

The last two serious prospective primary challengers to the president have dropped out, even as an appetite remains for a rival among Republican voters.

Athit Perawongmetha / Reuters

If you’re looking for a date to chisel on the gravestone of the Republican resistance to President Donald Trump, June 1, 2019, will work nicely.

That’s the day that Maryland Governor Larry Hogan told The Washington Post, “I’m not going to be a candidate for president in 2020.” The day before, former Ohio Governor John Kasich also closed the door, which was only very slightly ajar, on his own 2020 run. “There is no path right now for me. I don’t see a way to get there,” Kasich said on CNN. “Maybe somebody wants to run and make a statement, and that’s fine, but I’ve never gotten involved in a political race where I didn’t think I could win.”

Yes, former Massachusetts Governor William Weld remains in the GOP race, but no one is under any illusion that his challenge to Trump exceeds the moral and symbolic realm. (Some never-Trump dead-enders had hoped that someone like Kasich, a 2016 candidate, or even more so Hogan, a successful, popular Republican governor in a liberal state, might provide a more viable—though still doomed—challenger.) But across the landscape, a variety of signs show that Hogan’s and Kasich’s decisions are more symptoms than causes of the sputtering anti-Trump bloc within the Republican Party and conservatism.

Consider National Review, the grand old organ of the conservative movement. In 2016, in the most ambitious crossover event in right-wing-media history, the magazine published a collection of conservative writers of all stripes writing in opposition to Trump’s candidacy. The gesture was dramatic, though a little too late. Around the same time, one of National Review’s writers, David French, considered a quixotic challenge to Trump in the name of a principled conservatism. Trump’s triumph was a bitter revelation for these writers—that the GOP was not the principled, orderly Burkean party they had imagined, but rather an unruly populist groundswell.

And today? The pundits have largely accommodated themselves to the GOP as it is, rather than as they imagined it was. The National Review editor Rich Lowry, who oversaw that issue, routinely writes sympathetically or in defense of Trump. Jonah Goldberg, one of the magazine’s most stalwart anti-Trumpers, departed on Friday for a new conservative-media venture. French has become, probably unfairly, the target in an otherwise largely inscrutable internecine battle among conservative pundits about approach. Erick Erickson, who is not part of the NR crew but contributed to the never-Trump issue, earlier this year endorsed Trump for reelection and has become a vocal defender of the president.

If Trump loses his bid for reelection (and perhaps even if he wins), the 2020 Republican primary—or rather, the lack thereof—will be a mystery for future political scientists to puzzle over. How could a president who is historically unpopular, careens from crisis to crisis, and faces a serious threat of impeachment cruise to renomination without a serious challenge?

In explaining his decision not to run, Hogan cited his obligations to the voters who elected him: “I have a commitment to the 6 million people of Maryland and a lot of work to do, things we haven’t completed.” Yet he, like Kasich, also acknowledged the political reality of the situation. With the president’s approval rating among Republicans at an astronomical 90 percent (about double the general population’s approval), what’s the point in throwing yourself in front of the Trump train?

There is a moral case for doing so, which is basically Weld’s: Trump has no business being president, and so challenging him is the right thing to do, even if it’s doomed. “We need to have a bigger tent and find a way to get things done,” Hogan told the Post. “We need some civility and bipartisanship. Our politics are broken. Washington is broken. But we have a story to tell.” Yet Hogan is eschewing the simplest way to tell that story.

Yet one could also make a case for running based on, believe it or not, polling of Republican voters. Despite Trump’s strong support inside the party, 43 percent of GOP voters say they want to see a primary challenge to the president, even as 56 percent do not, according to Pew. That’s a slight increase from last fall. Pat Buchanan’s 1992 primary challenge to President George H. W. Bush shows the impact a long-shot challenge can have. (Then again, Bush entered the campaign popular overall but weakened within the GOP—a mirror image of Trump, who is more popular within his party than among the general public.)

Conservative leaders in both politics and media, having underestimated the support for a Trump-style candidate before 2016, appear to have overcorrected, thus abandoning the strong minority of Republican voters who still want an alternative and leaving this bloc without a viable candidate.

The GOP opposition to Trump has effectively vanished, at least at elite levels, yet plenty of rank-and-file Republicans and Republican-leaning independents remain who are wary of the president. That shifts the locus for any challenge outside the GOP. It could come in the person of Representative Justin Amash, the Republican from Michigan who has been courted as a Libertarian candidate in 2020, and who has recently made a splash for calling for Trump’s impeachment, or perhaps another challenger is waiting in the wings.

In the meantime, the Republican resistance is dead. In lieu of flowers, send symbolic write-ins or third-party votes to the candidate of your choice.